Archives for category: Hitler
PolishWeddingChairs1939

Red wedding chairs in a forest in Poland, circa 1939.

UPDATED AT THE END…

If a tree grows through a red chair in the forest, is it real?

This photo made the rounds on Facebook recently and I’m inexorably haunted by it.

The accompanying text read:

These chairs were laid out for a wedding in 1939 in Poland. The wedding was abandoned, and so were the chairs due to the German invasion. They were found again after the war with the trees growing through them. Every year they are repainted.

My initial response was OMG (fitting for Facebook, I know). I can’t stop looking at this picture. The lush green grass sprouting at the base of the spindly tree trunks. The vivid red paint on the chairs that reveals some of the wood grain beneath. This image is bold. It feels stylized. Could it be that it was Photoshopped?

I’m trying to figure out how all the trees rose so perfectly through the space in the chair-backs without breaking any of the chairs in the process. Maybe that’s the part that’s stylized; the folks who come and paint them every year (meanwhile, who are they?) fixed the broken ones and manipulated them to create this perfect alignment.

In a reverse-image search on Google the only results I got were from Pinterest. Strange. And I came up empty at Snopes, the hoax-busting website. Does anyone reading this know the origin of this photo and/or the accompanying story behind it? I’m mostly looking for verification and if it is indeed real, I’d like to know more details. It’s lovely and eerie and I can’t take my eyes off it.

Baffled, intrigued, and impatiently waiting for answers. Got any?

UPDATED at 4pm on July 15, 2015

So that was fast. Not sure where the Holocaust tale came from, but this is actually a picture of an art exhibition. From 2001! It’s called “The Four Seasons of Vivaldi” and it was created by a French artist named Patrick Demazeau. The photo was taken in a forest in the province of Namur, Belgium. Here’s the link.

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Rich Cohen, perhaps best known for his book Tough Jews, just wrote the most crystal-clear explanation of the current state of American Jews on Tablet. He answered things I didn’t even know I was wondering about. Here are some of Cohen’s main points, via quotes taken directly from his essay:

Our seven-decade bubble
“The unimaginable evil of the Holocaust seemed to kill anti-Semitism, even the polite country-club variety that shows up in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. After the war, Hemingway disavowed Jewish jokes, which, he seemed to realize, were connected, in some way, to what happened. It created a bubble, a zone of safety not only for Jews but for other minorities. It’s no coincidence that the civil right movements came in the wake of WWII. Anti-Semitism still existed of course, but, in America, it became socially unacceptable. It retreated to the bedrooms and parlors, where it was expressed in the way of certain mystery religions, in secret, behind closed doors, so quietly you might think it had vanished.

“This is my childhood, the world where I grew up. The horror of the Holocaust purchased us a 70-year vacation from history, though we didn’t know it. We believed the world had changed, as had human nature. Jews remained distinct in the new dispensation, but in a good way—a near-at-hand exotic, a symbol of exile, which we were told was the natural state of modern man. For perhaps the only time in history, you might actually want to be a Jew. Because of the close families and good husbands and yada yada. Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, Mel Brooks. To those of us who came of age in these years, the future seemed like it would be more of the same, the present carried on forever.

Jews can no longer pass
“It’s as if Jews are bell-bottoms or fringed coats. Once upon a time, we’d been in fashion, but not anymore. What you have now is a return to the green-screen hatred, which, like malaria, spikes and remits but never goes away.”

What changed?
“Well, for starters, there are just fewer of us in proportion to the whole. Whereas Jews once constituted five percent of America, and as much as forty percent of New York, those numbers have shrunk. We’re perhaps thirteen percent of New York and around two percent of the nation. In this sense, American Jews are living with the results of their success. This is indeed the promised land. It’s where Jews fulfilled the dream which, for many, has been to stop being Jews and become part of the imagined whole.  Like the caboose of a train, we’re getting smaller as we go away.”

What else?
“Which brings up the second point—the Holocaust, which is one reason there are so few Jews. We lost almost half our population not long ago. “Never Forget” is one of the admonitions we heard in Sunday School. But people do forget. Everything, all the time. As the events exit living memory, as the people who survived it as well as those who liberated the camps, die, tragedy shifts from memory to history. As memory fades, the old thing returns, filling the subterranean cisterns.”

The all too common conflation of Israel with Judaism
“Some attribute the hatred to the policies of Israel. (“Bibi is to blame.”) But this confuses cause and effect. Israel is not the source of anti-Semitism, but a result. Before the Holocaust, it was said that the Jews in their statelessness were the cause of wars and disturbance, the burr under the saddle of mankind, the ghost in the machinery of statecraft. After the Holocaust, it’s said that Israel, the Jewish State, is the burr under that saddle. Though the condition has changed—no state v. state—the conclusion remains the same: It’s the Jews. To me, this is the world settling back into the Jew-loving and Jew-hating equilibrium that was unsettled, for a time, by the Shoah. After, all, the dream of the early Zionists was neither to be hated, nor loved—it was to be normal, treated as individuals, like everyone else.”

(This is Julie speaking now, up until here it was all quotes from Rich Cohen’s piece)
Although this is not wonderful news, it brings me some relief. I realize that I’ve been trying to make sense of what’s going on, why there’s been such a surge of anti-Semitic acts of late, and this helps me understand it better in a historical context. It’s not that the last seven decades have been idyllic, but they have certainly been a reprieve from what came before. If it indeed represents just a lull in the hatred and vitriol, we have our work cut out for us. We will not be silenced.

*This is Cohen’s phrase; I just used it for my headline because it was a perfect encapsulation.

Graduation 1979, the author with his parents and brother

Graduation 1979, Dr. Rotbart with his parents and brother. Photo courtesy of NYT.

Read a really powerful essay this morning in the New York Times and thought I’d share it with you.

Poised to attend his daughter’s graduation from NYU this month, a man named Harley Rotbart, M.D. was reminded of his medical school graduation in May 1979. His father, a survivor of Auschwitz who was orphaned in the war, was never able to get a proper education past middle school. When he came to the states he made his living as a fruit peddler:

He was the most brilliant fruit peddler in the history of fruit peddling, the smartest man I ever knew,” writes Dr. Rotbart.

Yet, he had a crushing inferiority complex and felt he stood out for all the wrong reasons, mainly his lack of education and thick Polish accent. He was intimidated by all the accomplishments of those around him. But at his son’s graduation a curious thing happened. Dr. Rotbart describes the emotional scene that occurred immediately after the ceremony:

After hugs from my brother and Mom, I moved on to Dad. What happened at that moment I will never forget. Crying loudly, Dad fell to his knees in what can only be described as a total emotional breakdown. He shook and shivered and sobbed. People all around turned to stare, but he didn’t notice or didn’t care. The usual self-consciousness was gone. As I dropped to my knees to face him, he held me like never before. Everyone backed away to give us space; a few applauded. Strangers took pictures. Dad and I stayed on our knees, crying and hugging for a long time, until we both had the strength to stand up. Then, holding onto each other and to my Mom and brother, we made our way out of the auditorium. We didn’t stop at the reception for cookies or punch. We just kept walking until we felt the rain on our faces.

Only later did I fully realize what had happened. On that day, and again in a similar scene at my brother’s journalism school ceremony the next year, Dad was liberated from Auschwitz. He was no longer “142178,” a Nazi victim. My father could now stand face to face with doctors, journalists and other accomplished Americans. Although uneducated himself, he had educated his kids, and that was plenty good enough. Better than good enough: it was great. No longer bound by the restraints life had forced on him, he reveled in what this new country had given him. He reveled in his family and in his fruit truck. He reveled in personally defeating Hitler. At his sons’ graduations, he graduated to freedom.

I am so touched by this man’s capacity for love and understanding for his father.  The bittersweet release that his father felt, which took more than 34 years to occur, was certainly a long-time coming. It’s sad but it’s also happy. Many, perhaps most, survivors never get (or got) a sense of closure and freedom in their lifetime. But his father did, and it happened twice. Must’ve been a beautiful scene to happen upon. And I love Dr. Rotbart’s ability to tell it in such a sweet and loving way.

Oh, Dr. Rotbart is a pediatrician and author of several books about parenting, one of which is called, No Regrets Parenting. Sounds like he learned a lot from his dad. If you click through to the essay in the Times, you’ll see several photos of his dad. Take a close look at his smile in the two fruit-related pictures. It’s genuine and gorgeous. The best kind of smile.

Hitler's food taster, Margot Woelk. Photo: Markus Schreiber, AP.

Hitler’s food taster, Margot Woelk. Photo: Markus Schreiber, AP.

Margot Woelk, the sole survivor of Hitler’s 15 food tasters, has recently come forward about her wartime experience. She is 95 years old and never told a soul until recently.

The food was delicious, only the best vegetables, asparagus, bell peppers, everything you can imagine. And always with a side of rice or pasta,” she recalled. “But this constant fear — we knew of all those poisoning rumors and could never enjoy the food. Every day we feared it was going to be our last meal.”

What a paradox. Indulging in gourmet fare at every meal when the rest of the world is scrounging for scraps, yet knowing any forkful could be the last. And yet, it was all to protect a megalomaniacal mass murderer. At first it seems difficult to reconcile, but after reading this important part of the story that was left out (!!!) by nearly every news outlet that reported on this in the last couple of days, I realized she too was a victim. According to an article in Spiegel, April 2, 2013,

…[the] young woman who had refused to join the League of German Girls (BDM), the girl’s version of Hitler Youth, and whose father had been hauled off for refusing to join the Nazi party, became Hitler’s helper. Each day, her life was on the line for a man she deeply despised.”

Why did she come forward now, 68 years after the war ended? “For decades, I tried to shake off those memories,” she said. “But they always came back to haunt me at night.” Well into her twilight years, frail and home-bound (there’s no elevator in her Berlin apartment building), she feels compelled to share her story and try to make peace with what she did. According to Spiegel,

It wasn’t until this winter, when a local journalist paid her a visit for her 95th birthday and began asking questions, that she spoke about what she calls the worst years of her life. At that moment, she suddenly decided to break her silence. ‘I just wanted to say what happened there,’ she says. ‘That Hitler was a really repugnant man. And a pig.’

The other 14 tasters—all young women in their early 20s like Ms. Woelk—were shot by the Russians. Only Ms. Woelk survived because she heeded the advice of an SS friend, and fled Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in the nick of time and took a train to Berlin. But her deeds did not go unpunished.

“The Russians then came to Berlin and got me, too,” Woelk said. “They took me to a doctor’s apartment and raped me for 14 consecutive days. That’s why I could never have children. They destroyed everything.”

It’s a very sad story and something I never really thought about, even though I vaguely knew there were food tasters for Hitler. It’s amazing that she kept the story to herself; she never even told her  husband. What a burden to carry for an entire life, especially one that’s lasted as long as hers. I know some people won’t feel compassion for her, and I agree on some level it’s not easy, but she suffered too at the hands of the Russians. Read more of her story here and let me know what you think.

Sugihara-Train-9_4_1940-KaunasLithuania, USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

The Sugihara family headed for Berlin, Sept. 4, 1940. Courtesy of USHMM & Hiroki Sugihara.

I can’t get this image out of my head: Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara leaning out the window of his departing train, illegally signing off on visas to help thousands of Jews escape Hitler’s deathly grasp.

The Huffington Post captures the scene well: “The Japanese government closed the consulate, located in Kovno [aka Kaunas]. But even as Sugihara’s train was about to leave the city, he kept writing visas from his open window. When the train began moving, he gave the visa stamp to a refugee to continue the job.”

In Conspiracy of Kindness, a PBS film documenting Mr. Sugihara’s remarkable story, his wife, Yukiko Sugihara described their last days in Lithuania:

He was so exhausted, like a sick person. Even though he was ordered to go to Berlin, he said he couldn’t make it to Berlin and suggested we go to a hotel and rest before leaving. When we got to the hotel, the Jewish people came looking for us there. So he wrote some more visas in the hotel.

The next day when we got to the train station, they were there too. So he wrote more visas on the platform until the train left. Once we were on board, they were hanging on the windows and he wrote some more. When the train started moving, he couldn’t write any more. Everyone was waving their hands. One of them called out, ‘Thank you Mr. Sugihara, we will come to see you again,’ and he came running after the train. I couldn’t stop crying. When I think about it even now I can’t help crying.

From July 31 through August 28, 1940, Mr. Sugihara issued at least 2,139 visas; in many cases entire families were able to escape on a single visa.

Chiune Sugihara, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1940Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

Chiune Sugihara, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1940
Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

There is so much more to his story, much of it heartbreaking, but certainly worth knowing. PBS produced a timeline of his life with just the right amount of details to give us a sense of who this courageous man was. When he was sent to Prague in 1941 after Berlin, he boldly issued another 69 visas.

None of this was without consequence. Upon his return to Japan in 1947 (he and his family were interned in Russia for 18 months after the war ended), he was forced to resign and lived the next 25 years in obscurity, taking on  menial odd jobs including selling light bulbs door to door.

All this time Mr. Sugihara wondered if his visas actually worked. Although many survivors attempted to locate him, no one succeeded until 1968, when visa recipient Joshua Nishri, by then an Israeli diplomat, got in touch with him.

It wasn’t until 1985 though, after amassing hundreds of survivor testimonies attesting to Mr. Sugihara’s brave acts of kindness, that Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, declared him “Righteous Among Nations,” and planted a tree in his name. A park in Jerusalem was also named for him.

The timeline concludes with his death in 1986 at the age of 86, “…having proved beyond doubt that one person can make a difference. By some estimates, more than 40,000 people alive today have him to thank for their very existence. Sugihara once said, recalling his decision in Lithuania in 1940, ‘I may have disobeyed my government, but if I didn’t I would be disobeying God.’ ‘In life,” he said, ‘do what’s right because it’s right, and leave it alone.'”

In 2000, on the 100th anniversary of his death, Japan formally acknowledged his courageous deeds. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Foreign Minister Yohei Kono apologized to Sugihara’s widow, Yukiko, for any ‘troubles’ that Sugihara had suffered and unveiled a plaque at the ministry’s diplomatic record office, where Sugihara’s picture, his story and the list of people to whom he issued visas are now prominently displayed.”

The New York Times referred to him as the “Japanese Schindler.” No disrespect to Mr. Schindler, but Mr. Sugihara saved more lives. (I know that sounds petty and somewhat callous, but hey, it’s true.) Perhaps Mr. Schindler should be called the German Sugihara?

If you’re interested in learning more, have at it:

As if we needed another reason to heart Mr. Jolie.

IndieWire reports the still-hot actor/producer (Moneyball, The Tree of Life) is going to produce and possibly star in the movie adaptation of Edwin Black‘s, IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation.

Claude Brodesseur-Akner reports in Vulture, New York Magazine’s culture portal,

“While the Holocaust obviously predates the personal computer, it did not precede the information age, and Black’s book answers one of the Holocaust’s most obvious questions: How did the Nazis identify and round up so many Jews with such precision and speed?”

Of course there are other companies complicit in helping the Nazis implement their master plan that are still around today: Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen,  Ford (see Ford and the Führer). Other household names including Krupp, Kellogg and Bayer also profited from forced labor of Holocaust victims.

I remember learning about some of these companies’ involvement when I was younger and swearing I would never purchase or use any of their products. Well, to date I’ve never owned a Ford, Mercedes or VW but I’ve certainly ridden in all three. And I’ve taken Bayer aspirin on more than one occasion and although not a coffee drinker, my husband (the son of two Holocaust survivors) uses a Krupps coffee grinder to get his beans just right. Oh, and Kellogg’s? Please. Like Seinfeld, I could eat cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I’m getting off track here. The purpose of this post is that I’m excited for this movie to be made. And in a weird way I’m glad Brad Pitt is the force behind it, if only for the fact that he’ll be able to attract the right people and backers to get it done.

It’s interesting because you’d think this is a movie Steven Spielberg, with his Shoah Foundation and Oscar-winning Schindler’s List, would make. But I’m glad that it’s being made by a gentile — a smart, sexy, talented gentile, at that. I like when nonmembers of the tribe take up our cause.

Why am I not surprised? (And, really, how much uglier could Todd Akin‘s story get?)

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Akin’s source about the rarity of pregnancy resulting in rape is from a 1972 study by Dr. Fred Mecklenburg, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the University of Minnesota Medical School at the time. The Post-Dispatch writes:

In supporting his claim about trauma and ovulation, Mecklenburg cited experiments conducted in Nazi death camps.

The Nazis tested this hypothesis ‘by selecting women who were about to ovulate and sending them to the gas chambers, only to bring them back after their realistic mock-killing, to see what the effect this had on their ovulatory patterns. An extremely high percentage of these women did not ovulate.'”

I’m shocked to silence. Luckily, this commenter, who goes by the name of DriveBy, isn’t:

It would appear that the links between the Republican brain and the Nazi brain are even deeper than the obvious.”

 

What’s scarier than an angry flash mob? An angry flash mob of Neo-Nazis carrying torches.

As shown in the CNN video above, hundreds of Neo-Nazis wearing black robes and white masks take to the streets at night spreading their hateful rhetoric. They organize themselves entirely online and via text message, which reminds me of that famed New Yorker cartoon where one dog says to another, “Online, no one knows you’re a dog,” but in this case it’s with a perverse twist: “Online, no one knows you’re a Neo-Nazi.” Actually, they do. Because the Internet provides false anonymity, they feel emboldened to spew their hatred as a group. And offline, of course, they feel the need to disguise themselves. (Honestly, to me, they come across as scarier versions of the Phantom of the Opera.)

“It is a frightening scene that resembles the Nazi torch marches of the 1930s,” reports CNN’s International correspondent Isha Sesay. German officials say this group, which goes by the self-appointed moniker, The Immortals, is a serious and growing concern.

Professor Hajo Funke of the Free University of Berlin, who appears on the CNN clip above, The Immortals have already attacked people and institutions and are a group “not without violence.”

And of course, they are using modern technology to its full advantage by recording video of their marches and then uploading them to YouTube. Before they do that, though, they head to the editing room and manipulate their footage to full effect and add haunting music to the audio track.

I don’t want to link to it (I watched 10 seconds of it and almost vomited on my keyboard) but if you want to find it, type “The Immortals. Bautzen, Germany, May 2011” into YouTube’s search bar. Forewarned though, you’ll want to have a barf bag at the ready.

Waiting to hear their names called… photo: courtesy of The Sun

First they were fighting for their lives. Now they’re fighting for the crown?

Yesterday in Haifa, Israel, 14 female Holocaust survivors aged 74 to 97 competed in a beauty pageant for the title of Miss Holocaust Survivor (at the very least they could have extended the courtesy of Ms. Holocaust Survivor.) Shimon Sabag, director of Yad Ezer L’Haver (Helping Hand), the organization that produced this event, said that the pageant was a celebration of life and that “the fact that so many women entered prove that it’s a good idea.”

I beg to differ.

That so many women — the 14 contestants came from a pool of 300 — does not mean it was a good idea. I’m no scientist but if you’re going to use the words “fact” and (a variation of the word) “proof,” it should at least pass the smell test. And this pageant reeks of wrong on so many levels.

Critics have alternately described the pageant as macabre, inappropriate, misguided, offensive, and gimmicky. I believe it is all those things. And it’s surely in bad taste.

Ms. Sabag says  the winners were chosen based on their personal stories of survival and rebuilding their lives after the war.  She’s quick to note that “physical beauty was only a tiny part of the competition.” Grrr.

I wonder if she and the other organizers of this pageant were responding to the fact that survivors  —and their children and grandchildren — are desperate to keep the stories of the Holocaust alive. There are so many books and memoirs out there and many people complain that there’s nothing left to be said, or at least nothing new. This was a nice deflection perhaps, to offer up something new to talk about something that’s becoming increasingly old. But even so, it still feels crass and misguided.

I like what Gal Mor of Israeli site, Holes in the Net, wrote:

“Why should a decayed, competitive institution that emphasizes women’s appearance be used as inspiration, instead of allowing them to tell their story without gimmicks? This is one step short of ‘Survivor-Holocaust’ or ‘Big Brother Auschwitz.’ It leaves a bad taste.”

Indeed it does. What do you think?

(Mad Men Spoiler Alert!)

Mad Men, that perennially hot TV show that kept fans waiting 16 months between fixes, now has a Jewish copywriter. His name is Michael Ginsberg. Being a Jewish copywriter myself (or, more accurately, a copywriter who happens to be Jewish), I was initially intrigued by this new character. But last night’s episode threw me for a loop. Michael told fellow copywriter Peggy Olson that he was born in a concentration camp. (For those less familiar with Mad Men, it’s a period-based show set in late 1960s New York City). Peggy, obviously disturbed by this pronouncement, later told her boyfriend that it just couldn’t possibly be true, could it? Michael feels it can’t be true either, and feels his stepfather must have lied to him. His stepfather also “conveniently” told him that his real mother died in the camp.

I’m interested to see where this particular storyline goes since it’s eerily like the basis of my book about my mother-in-law who really was born in a concentration camp. In 2001 when my then-boyfriend — now husband — first told me his mom was born in a camp, I was shocked. I didn’t believe it was even possible, as I assumed all pregnant women were killed and if one was lucky enough to slip by Mengele, I figured that child would instantly be killed at birth. Apparently, that isn’t necessarily so.

My very much alive-and-kicking mother-in-law, Hana Berger Moran (age 67), was indeed born in a concentration camp. In fact, there are at least three babies who were born in concentration camps that I’m aware of, which leads me to believe there must be others. Each of these babies and their mothers defied the odds to survive, which I believe was due much in part to circumstance and luck. But of course, that’s only part of the story.

Can’t wait to see where the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, goes with this subplot. He best not disappoint.